WASHINGTON - If it comes to war in Iraq, President Bush should heed the example set by his father before the 1991 Persian Gulf war and rule out the possible use of nuclear weapons. The elder Bush did not want to become the second president in history to order a nuclear attack, and neither should his son.
Yet there is evidence that the current administration is wrongly seeking to blur the decades-old distinction between nuclear and conventional weapons as it contemplates contingencies for using nuclear weapons on the battlefield. Moreover, the administration may be planning to use nuclear weapons even before an adversary strikes.
While the U.S. use of nuclear weapons is remote, The Los Angeles Times reported Jan. 26 that the Bush administration is looking at how nuclear weapons might be used, including pre-emptively, in Iraq. The report, based on discussions with "multiple sources close to the process," builds upon the Bush administration's move a few months ago to enshrine earlier warnings that the United States might respond to a chemical or biological attack with nuclear weapons as official U.S. policy.
When asked about the Times article, White House spokesman Ari Fleischer simply responded, "We don't rule anything in and we don't rule anything out."
If this administration is readying itself to use nuclear weapons pre-emptively or in response to a chemical or biological attack, it's embarking on a path that would undercut U.S. leadership in the world, undermine more than 30 years of efforts to stem the spread of nuclear weapons and break a nearly 60-year-old taboo against their use.
Nuclear weapons are not, and should not be confused or equated with, conventional arms or even chemical and biological weapons. That's why the United States has spearheaded global efforts since the 1960s to stop additional countries from acquiring atomic arms.
The rationale underlying this U.S.-led effort was that the widespread proliferation of such powerful weapons could increase the likelihood that they would be used with devastating consequences for U.S. security and world stability.
In 1968, the United States and the four other nuclear-weapon states at the time - China, France, the Soviet Union and Britain - struck a bargain through the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty with those countries not possessing nuclear weapons. The five nuclear weapon states would work toward disarmament in exchange for others without nuclear weapons forswearing them. Over time, the United States also pledged not to use nuclear weapons against countries that did not own them unless they waged war against the United States in alliance with a nuclear-weapon state.
If the United States were to use nuclear weapons first in a conflict against a country without them, such as Iraq, it would be viewed by the world as a sign of U.S. hypocrisy and lead many governments to conclude that the only guarantor of security is the possession of nuclear weapons. Nuclear weapons would no longer be viewed as terrifying weapons of last resort but as ones that are militarily useful and necessary.
With the most advanced and powerful conventional forces ever possessed in the history of the world, the United States is the last country that should suggest that nuclear weapons are simply just another arrow in the quiver.
The United States has the capability to defeat adversaries or inflict necessary and devastating punishment without resorting to nuclear weapons, which could cause the deaths of thousands and up to hundreds of thousands of innocent civilians in a single blow. Such a move would have little military utility and no moral basis, and would likely spur other countries to seek their own nuclear capabilities, which would ultimately make the United States less safe.
U.S. nuclear use could also have more immediate and dangerous ramifications for South Asia by leading nuclear-armed rivals India and Pakistan, which almost stumbled into war last year, to draw incorrect conclusions about the utility of nuclear weapons. The two countries may accelerate their arms race and show less restraint in using nuclear weapons in a future crisis.
The credibility of U.S.-led international efforts to deny other countries nuclear weapons rests upon the fundamental argument that such weapons are in a class by themselves and are not simply just another weapon for battle. To use nuclear weapons, particularly against a country not possessing them, would be to make such justification moot.
The United States has nothing to gain and everything to lose if it uses nuclear weapons in a possible conflict with Iraq. Mr. Bush must therefore reassure the world that he will not authorize their use.
Wade Boese is research director of the Arms Control Association, a privately funded policy organization.